Friday, December 25, 2009

The Keys to Winning Poker

As I've experienced more success with tournament Texas Hold'em, quite a few friends and others have asked how they might become successful poker players. How did you do it, they ask. Because, after all, I'm filthy rich and famous and grace multiple TV networks with my mug. And I'm not just struggling to keep my total winnings high than my buy-ins. Really...I swear. Okay, you got me. Perhaps I'm only barely keeping my head above water, but I'm making money, if not yet a living.

And there's the rub. A successful poker player is not defined as only the player that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. With the vast majority of players losing money, poker success probably is best defined as actually making money, whether one dollar or one million. My path toward relative success follows, and while I recommend ignoring it completely, it is my story.

The Twinstalker Way

1. Remember how you were born to play poker. Selective memory plays a big part of getting started in the poker world, as well as justifying your poker playing to your mom and/or girlfriend. Everybody remembers constantly beating your relatives at "guts" or "in-between" or "baseball." The losses fade from memory, and the wins stand out. As do the compliments from Aunt Marion about how good of poker player you were. He's such a good little player, Barbara, you must be so proud.

2. Play the game. After learning how to play your favorite game, in my case no-limit Texas Hold'em, forget studying strategy and just dive right in. I decided to get an online account and started losing right away. It's fixed, after all.

3. Determine that the only thing that matters is your gut feel. When to bet, when to call, when to's all a gut feel.

4. Learn the game. After excessive losing and having your wins packaged with chat room derision from your online competitor's, it might be time to learn how to play the game with a little. I went out and found a Phil Gordon book that explained the game to me at a very high level. It was the first time I'd learned the relative value of starting hands and heard of pot odds and implied odds. Awesome, I can use my math major.

5. Find a live game. I found this a great way to leave the internet derision behind and receive live chiding and denigration from a number of living, breathing, poker players. My wild-ass, non-strategic betting confused people enough to make my new cash game a winning proposition. At this point, I started to implement my new understanding of "odds" and proceeded to lose $800 on a Monday, $800 on a Thursday, and nearly my life on the Friday when the game was, um, interrupted. I didn't like cash games, really, so at this time I decided to switch to live tournaments, my favorite poker genre.

6. Realize it's not bad luck you're experiencing. This is actually the one piece of advice I give to anyone who asks. I started playing live tournaments in the fall of 2008, my improvement at it has been steady, and one aspect has stood out for me. Almost every tournament you play in, you lose. I won somewhere between five and eight live tournaments in 2009, probably twice the rate someone would expect to win if all players were equal, but it still meant that I lost 95% of the time.

The first time I lost, somebody told me I experienced a bad beat. I thought about it for a moment. Yeah, but what was I doing risking all my chips when I didn't have to. It occurred to me that I made a mistake by allowing someone to get lucky and knock me out. From that time on, I took note of the mistakes I made and realized that I could trace every loss back to those mistakes. Instead of attributing losses to bad beats or claiming to be card-dead, I learned from my mistakes and tended not to make them the next time. This led to much-improved play, better results, and, eventually, gruding recognition from my peers that I've made the transition from dangerous donkey to pretty good poker player.